Surely a cool and hip institution like ManchesterMusic has no business reviewing an arena gig? After all, the M.E.N. Arena is the preserve of excessively popular comedians, bloated rock bands lost in their own wealth and success and shows which feature ‘On Ice’ prominently in their title. I hear the power of that argument and frankly it can go impale itself on its own too hip butt – because where Rush are concerned, I’d happily go and watch them anywhere – even if they played that ‘Worst Toilet in Scotland’ featured in Trainspotting.
One thing Rush aren’t is cool and hip. Indeed a recent snotty and dismissive Guardian review underlined this. But unlike many ‘big bands’ who play the M.E.N., Rush have never been cool and hip. Thank God. The essence of their appeal has always been supreme musicianship, self-deprecation and dedication to music – something that has drawn intelligent fans from music tribes of all flavours.
Let’s get this out of the way first: the M.E.N. Arena is so vast I wouldn’t be surprised if it generated its own rain clouds forming somewhere near the ceiling. Which is ironic: for in music terms, it is typically one of the least atmospheric places in the world. It takes quite a band to cope with this reality and fill it with sound. Rush – relying essentially on the strength of their music – do this with ease.
Inevitably, for a band of this size, Rush do have one or two moments of flash; given that they are Canadian, they involve taking the piss out of themselves. The show is punctuated with three films entitled ‘The Real History of Rush’ – smart, hi-gloss and genuinely funny shorts in which Lee, Peart & Lifeson play various characters (with unexpected acting skill) and suggest that Rush started out as a kind of uber-shite polka/umpah band. The absurd umpah version of ‘Spirit of Radio’ from the opening film is both brilliant and funny and serves as intro to the bravura live version which kicks off the show. Though it pushes bassist Lee’s falsetto voice to the limit, he and the band more than deliver; indeed, if you wanted to know what joy looked like on Thursday night, all you had to do was look into the faces of fifteen thousand fans as the iconic opening riff kicks in.
There are tight bands and then there is Rush. The opening half comprises primarily work from their post-Moving Pictures career, including ‘Presto’ and ‘Stick it Out’. Late ‘70s effort, ‘Freewill’ is magnificent however and the new track, ‘BU2B’ is gloriously heavy – indeed as heavy as anything they’ve done since their early- Led Zep influenced incarnation. Each track is flawlessly delivered. Bassist Lee is bewildering in his musical facility, drummer Peart wondrously concentrated and the underrated Lifeson creates a huge guitar sound. Such music can be sterile; in a band as committed as Rush there was no risk of that. Big old bands can become mere cabaret acts, repeating old tracks endlessly; Rush continue to create and on the other new track ‘Caravan’ continue to strive for a blend of big riffs and satisfying refrains.
It is the second half which truly dazzles - the first section comprises a performance of 1980’s classic ‘Moving Pictures’ in its entirety. From ‘Tom Sawyer’, through the scintillating ‘YYZ’ to album closer ‘Vital Signs’, the band produce a genuinely sphincter-loosening show. Rush – and specifically Peart – have always been one of the most ‘air-drumming’ worthy acts around; if you weren’t whacking imaginary skins by the time this album was done, frankly you were dead. Personally I dislike drum solos, but Peart is basically the exception: his ten minute workout which followed ‘Moving Pictures’ is both fun (including a joyous big band section) and, with the addition of synth sounds, exceptionally atmospheric.
The closing section was pure Rush indulgence. The band have reportedly got sick of ‘70s beauty, ‘Closer to the Heart’, but this irritation was not on display – Lifeson introduces it with a beautiful 12 string arrangement and they smile as finished it off in an almost punky manner. Moving into the first two parts of seminal 70’s album ‘2112’, the crowd – reasonably restrained until them – have a communal orgasm and there is no doubt that this work remains as fresh today as it did then. The epic and complex instrumental ‘La Villa Strangiato’ begins the encore. What made it truly joyous was that they began it polka-style in comedic reference to their ‘History of Rush’ films. I’ve often been left breathless at gigs – mainly as a result of being whacked in the chest by some mosh-head; rarely has it happened as a result of fierce, sinewy licks. Closing with early masterwork, ‘Working Man’ – admittedly with reggae-style intro and a snippet of ‘Cygnus X1’ – is simple perfection: hard, committed and fundamental Rush. Though the post-gig film is not quite as amusing as the other two, the overall effect of music and visuals is perfect. Only a fool would not adore Rush.
pic: with kind permission (c) GemmaLouHarris Photography 2011